College or Travel? Do Both

Recently, I received this email from a reader of my blog. I think a lot of points are relevant to big trippers as this young person considers his future. Letter reprinted with permission.

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“I’ve just recently started to think about colleges I want to attend, as going to college is just what is expected of me. However, when I was talking to an adult at school about how I’d like to travel some day, she seemed very excited for me. She was the one to give me the idea of not spending so much money on college and to go straight to wandering the world. Now, my parents are pretty lenient but I’m sure they’ll advise me to go to college any way. I’m wondering if you, an experienced traveller, would recomend one or the other.”

Here was my answer:

Thanks so much for writing, happy to give some thoughts on what you ask. Congrats to you for asking these questions – huge questions! Important questions!

First, I wholeheartedly believe that you should go to college. I don’t know you, but a college degree is an investment you make that pays off huge in the future. Not just financially, but professionally and personally. The degree gives you freedom and the college experience, maturity and skills in critical thinking, analysis, communication, teamwork, leadership, etc. Once you get a degree, even in a humanities field, it’s up to you to make something of it. However, you have a very solid foundation that others, without degrees, do not. Financially, I don’t believe one should get into huge amounts of debt.

Anyway, onto the travel questions: I believe that there are a few ways to travel and mix college.  A disclaimer: This is broad advice, you and your parents know your situation the best. Plus, you haven’t mentioned what kind of experience you have traveling thus far or where you want to do. These are important factors.

The first questions are: Where Do You Want To Go? What Do You Want To Do?

Sit with this one. This is the formation of your travels. I wrote a blog post about creating your travel vision. It may be a little Oprah for you, but this method helps me.

I hesitate to agree with your school adult and say “just wander.” Wandering is inherent in travel. So is “seeing the world” – all very good reasons to travel and dream and should be built into the trip, but perhaps not the trip itself. It was always a dream of mine to “travel the world” but a trip didn’t happen until I was like, “What does that mean?” I sat with it for a while. The answer turned out to be three months in India in 2008.Regardless of the answer, I see a few starting points of When and How. Not the only ways, but in my opinion, solid places to start.

A Gap Year (Or Less) Before  You Go To College

Recent graduates in the UK, Europe and Australia go off after high school on a Gap Year. It’s very common, socially acceptable, and well-planned out. The time typically ranges from three months to a year. There’s a mix of touring, adventure, working abroad, and volunteering available throughout no matter where you go.  Also there are a lot of resources and support for gap years. Once you get on the road, you will find many other people your age. For places to go, Europe and Aus/NZ are easy because they are Western cultures, but expensive. I think one has to seek out the adventure there.

That said, I did go to Germany right after graduation for five weeks and had a blast with my friend. If you’re feeling adventurous, then I recommend Central and South America or Asia. Pros: All the pros of traveling – a new view on life, unbelievable experiences, less fear, more compassion, and a passport full of stamps. A con: Once you get into college, you may be one of the only people who have done a gap year, or maybe things have changed and it’s more common. Either way, it’s hard to be a long-term traveler in the midst of vacationers.
Here are a few resources:

Study Abroad in College

Most US colleges a study abroad program. They allow you to live in country and study in your field. I wasn’t able to study abroad and totally regret it.  It’s an incredible experience because it’s built into your degree and in your field of study.  Also, you can build in a few weeks or months after the program to travel with the new friends you’ve made or go off on your own. Pros: It’s very well-organized, you live as a local, and learn a culture and a language. Cons: Expense.I recommend, when evaluating colleges, look at the study abroad programs. There are also internship abroad programs available through the same office.
If either of these you’re not feeling, then there’s always work abroad programs after college – I found this blog article that lists a few of the programs I have heard of and the CIEE organization.
Thanks for the question and good luck in your travels!
Overall, I think this young person’s letter reveals a way that would-be travelers view travel and life – as an OR situation vs. an AND situation. May big trippers make the choice to travel AND work (either domestically or internationally), to travel AND go to college, to travel AND have relationships. Life is a spectrum of color that travel can make much more vibrant, it’s not just black and white.

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